This photo from the Royal Malaysian Air Force released on June 1, 2021, shows a Chinese People's Liberation Army Air Force Ilyushin Il-76 aircraft that Malaysian authorities said was in the airspace over Malaysia's maritime zone near the coast of Sarawak state on Borneo island. Photo: AFP / EyePress News

On May 31, Malaysia’s air defense radar detected “suspicious” flights by 16 People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) planes near Malaysia’s national airspace over the South China Sea.

According to the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) in a media statement, the Chinese planes, which flew in tactical formation, entered Malaysia’s Flight Information Region and came as close as 60 nautical miles to the Sarawak coast.

Attempts to direct the Chinese planes to contact Malaysia’s air traffic control failed, prompting the RMAF to scramble its jets. The PLAAF planes eventually changed course in the airspace above the Luconia Shoals. 

Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry summoned the Chinese ambassador over the matter and issued a diplomatic protest note. Despite China’s soft-pedaling of the flights as “routine training” in strict compliance with international law, this incident casts a long shadow over China’s rhetoric on maintaining good neighborly ties in the region, for several reasons. 

First, this incident should be viewed as the latest in a series of brazen actions by China in relation to the South China Sea. Since 2013, Malaysia has had to contend with the continued presence of Chinese vessels, particularly around the Luconia Shoals.

Last year, the Chinese government survey ship HaiyangDiZhi 8 engaged in a standoff with Petronas’ contracted survey vessel, West Capella, that lasted for months.

Malaysia’s auditor general reported 89 incursions by Chinese vessels between 2016 and 2019, while the Washington-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative reported that between 2018 and 2019 alone, at least one Chinese vessel remained around the Luconia Shoals for up to 258 days.

China’s recent enactment of its Coast Guard law has also caused concern about the prospects of stability in the South China Sea. 

Second, China’s defense of the May 31 incident, that it was exercising freedom of overflight, is curious given its own position on the matter in the past. The transport planes that the PLAAF flew close to Malaysia’s coast may not have been surveillance aircraft, but they were still military planes that failed to respond to radio contact.

Given China’s repeated protestations against military activities by the United States at sea and in the air as threats to international peace and security, the question arises as to whether Beijing has now departed from its previous stance and whether it presages the country’s aerial projection over the South China Sea in the near future. 

Third, 16 foreign military aircraft flying within close proximity to a country’s airspace over disputed territory without communication does little for trust-building. It raises the question of Beijing’s true intentions: Were these flights part of a wider campaign to assert China’s claims over the Spratly Islands and Luconia Shoals? Was it to test Malaysia’s response and resolve? Or was it simply a case of diplomatic insensitivity?

It is rare for the RMAF to go public over operational matters, and certainly a departure from the norm for the Malaysian Foreign Ministry to issue such a strongly worded statement in protest.

The timing of the flights was unfortunate, coming on the 47th anniversary of Malaysia-China relations and a day before the RMAF’s 63rd birthday.

Here lies the contradiction. Even as China acknowledges the need to endear itself to the international public, its actions speak loudly otherwise.

After the incident, some Chinese academics blamed the West for hyping the incident to sow discord. One commentator, whose YouTube video was widely shared, accused Malaysia of being two-faced, while one former Chinese diplomat even suggested that Malaysia’s response was deliberated to distract from its dismal handling of Covid-19. 

Such hawkish comments are unhelpful in convincing Southeast Asia of China’s peaceful rise, a promise that many in the region want but struggle to believe. As much as China seeks to distinguish itself from the United States as a more consultative and considerate major power, Beijing has, in fact, quite readily resorted to unilateralism in the South China Sea. 

Malaysia has tried to navigate great-power competition by closely engaging both the United States and China. China’s continued actions, however, may compel Malaysia to rethink its policy on the South China Sea and push other Southeast Asian countries to contemplate difficult choices they would rather not make.

With growing pressures against China by the United States and its allies, antagonizing friendly states in Southeast Asia would seem obviously counterproductive for Beijing’s own interests. 

That said, it would be a mistake to view any form of Malaysia’s pushback against China’s actions through the lens of US-China competition. Malaysia’s responses have been, and will continue to be, calibrated for Malaysia’s interests, first and foremost.

Yet despite the unpleasantness of this incident, it would be premature to say that Malaysia-China relations as a whole will be badly affected. In fact, it is likely that Malaysia will try to play it down once public sentiment subsides. This, of course, also depends on China’s actions. 

Ironically, in his ill-timed, maritime-themed message commemorating the anniversary of diplomatic relations the day the 16 planes flew toward Malaysian airspace, the Chinese ambassador to Malaysia described bilateral ties with the Malay proverb, “Air dicincang tidak akan putus” (Water that is chopped will never sever).

Its English equivalent approximates to blood being thicker than water. It was a clever choice alluding to the brotherly ties that Malaysia’s foreign minister himself has used to describe Malaysia-China relations.

It is true, of course, that water can never be severed. But hacking at it will only create rough, choppy conditions, and no one likes choppy waters, least of all in the South China Sea. 

Elina Noor

Elina Noor is director of political-security affairs, and deputy director, of the Asia Society Policy Institute, Washington, DC.

Ivy Kwek

Ivy Kwek is research director of Research for Social Advancement (REFSA), a Malaysia-based think-tank, and concurrently visiting scholar at National Chengchi University, Taiwan. She was formerly the special functions officer to the deputy defense minister of Malaysia and runs Projek Pertiwi, an online platform that aims to raise awareness on defense and security issues among Malaysian youth.